3:10 to Baghdad

To prepare for combat halfway around the world, the military looks to Yuma's desert laboratory

  • A soldier trains with a German shepherd at the K9 Village

  • Parachute test

  • Helicopter stirs up dust in the SandBlaster experiment

  • Desert bombing range


On an isolated sliver of desert, the ghostly outlines of anonymous buildings press against the sky: homes, a mosque, an open-air restaurant, a cemetery. There's a bridge, an old bus, a well, a traffic circle, an abandoned bike.

This shadow-town, called K9 Village, is one of a handful of simulated settlements on the Yuma Proving Ground, a Rhode Island-sized Army installation in the southwestern corner of Arizona. Here, on 1,300 square miles dotted with tank-crossing signs and saguaros, the military runs through battlefield scenarios and tests airdrop systems, aircraft, combat vehicles, long-range artillery, countermeasures for landmines and roadside bombs, and gear before it is issued to soldiers on the battlefield.

Early in the proving ground's history, training and munitions testing were fairly indiscriminate, leaving some areas contaminated with unexploded - and sometimes unmapped - ordnance. "In the 1950s, people really thought that the desert was a wasteland," says Randy English, conservation manager for the proving ground's Environmental Sciences Division.

But the military's attitude toward the desert has changed. Now, rather than exploiting this land for what is not here, the military looks to Yuma for what is here: a stateside mirror of environmental conditions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia and a testing environment that challenges the hardiest souls - and equipment. With its bizarre mixture of natural desert landscapes and high-tech gadgetry, the proving ground has become the military's premier test lab for the extremes of desert combat. And in a strange twist, this new appreciation for the land's utility has helped turn the military into a more meticulous desert caretaker.

Ten months out of the year, handlers and dogs ranging in breed from cocker spaniel to German shepherd comb through K9 Village to prepare for deployment together. In this unfamiliar territory, they must learn to spot - or smell - anything out of the ordinary, from weapons caches to people on the run. Trainers can stash explosives under any of roughly 30 crude trapdoors or blend them into the scene by hiding them in a burned-out truck or a pile of broken concrete. These drills, punctuated by blasts of loud music and the sound of recorded gunfire, help the K9 teams prepare for unnerving situations they will face in desert towns thousands of miles away.

"The goal was to make it realistic but not entirely specific to one particular place," says Luis Arroyo, the training manager at K9 Village. The town is disorienting and feels like a maze of dead-ends. The engineers who constructed these terracotta hovels were reluctant to leave walls crooked and staircases sloped at dangerous angles, but Arroyo wanted the village to mirror real patrol conditions. "A head out a window, a blind corner - these are things you are going to encounter," he says.

Farther north, another collection of mock communities, complete with 240 buildings and 14 miles of road, was built with specificity in mind. Designed to test countermeasures for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs - notorious for killing and injuring soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan - these settlements are closely modeled on satellite imagery and reports from the frontlines. Testers have used this mirage as a crucible for more than 150 of the latest anti-IED technologies, including flyover camera systems, electronic jammers to prevent remote detonation, and clawed robots that investigate suspected IEDs while soldiers stand back. Here, a robot or a sensor system might search for makeshift bombs painstakingly buried along the dirt roads of a mock Bedouin village or hidden behind the guardrails of a littered freeway overpass in the simulated urban area known as "Little Baghdad."

These analogues for the built environment are critical for combat training and equipment testing. But the natural environment is equally important. The goal is to create "representative structures in a representative desert environment," according to Graham Stullenbarger, chief of Yuma's Natural Environments Test Office.

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